A move to go metric: A journey of a thousand kilometers begins with a single step

I recently wrote an article for TheAtlantic.com on why the metric system isn’t dead in the United States and, in fact, may become more important in education. Currently, metric – officially it’s called the International Units of Systems– is the assumed measurement in science. Under Common Core State Standards, kids are supposed to be taught both metric and U.S. customary measures in math.

But some educators, including Sally Mitchell, a veteran high school chemistry teacher and Albert Einstein Fellow at the U.S. Department of Energy, swears a bilingual – actually, binumerate—education is nothing but confusing. Mitchell, who favors a metric-only education, says she’s witnessed how kids are just plain confused. Furthermore, she fears a lack of metric fluency contributes to United States math and science education problems.

U.S. students have slid on their global ranking in science and math, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In the most recent ranking, the U.S. was slotted between the Slovak Republic and Lithuania—just behind Russia.

While there isn’t research that proves learning metric only would improve our math and science programs, the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) sides with Mitchell, contending that a complete switch to the metric system in education would likely be a positive move. And research dating back to the late 1990s posits that teaching two measurement systems is a waste of valuable class time and education dollars that could be spent in more productive ways.

But here’s the kicker: a preliminary investigation indicates we could have a problem with teacher training. The research looked at a small number of preservice math teachers (aka student teachers) and found that too many were not fluent in metric conversion.

Mitchell, who is studying issues related to teaching metric, said it’s not surprising that teachers lack the deep knowledge of the metric system necessary to teach it. At one point in U.S. history, “going metric” in every way looked like a certainty —though the change was often not publicly popular. However, in the early 1980s when the U.S. Metric Board was abolished as part of a budget cuts plan, going metric dropped off most educational radars. The result is that while many U.S. industries – particularly science fields—went totally metric, there are still a lot of U.S. adults, not just teachers, who don’t know metric well.

It’s hard to find many parents or educators concerned with this lack of metric proficiency.

According to Chad Colby, vice president of communication for Next Generation Science Standards, a multi-state effort to develop new educational standards in coalition with the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Research Council and other educators, metric “did not come up during development of the Next Generation Science Standards — not even during the public comment periods.”

Mitchell, however, says there needs to more public awareness of our metric problems. She’s currently tasked with developing a training video aimed at getting teachers adequately prepared to teach metric to kids. In the meantime, she says there are plenty of things forward-thinking parents can do right now to increase metric fluency at home and school. “I raised my kids in a totally metric household and they’re all three scientists today,” she says.

Of course, I’m sure it helped that Mom is one of the best science teachers in the country.

That being said, here are four of Mitchell’s tips:

  • Start cooking metrically with your kids. Mitchell teaches a chemistry of cooking class and says cooking makes learning metric fun and easy. Get a metric scale and metric measuring cups, then start converting your recipes.
  • Encourage your teachers, schools and school district to focus more attention on metric. For example, teachers can order the NIST SI Teacher kit for free. Districts can apply to send teachers to a two-week NIST Summer Institute for middle school science teachers, which includes metric training. Or look for some of the other educator professional development opportunities that focus on metric.
  • Take it to school groups. Does your PTA/PFA need a new mission? Why not “go metric?” Signage, games or even just talking about metric issues in parent communications will bring more recognition to the issue.
  • Have fun with metric. Try playing conversion games with your kids, have them convert road signs and their body weight into metric. In the grocery store, point out the metric food labels. Hint: if you’re not a nimble converter yourself, a smartphone makes conversion easy. Try the converter at World Wide Metric.

Let’s start a movement. A journey of a thousand kilometers begins with a single step.

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Victoria Clayton

Victoria Clayton

Victoria loves research, reading, writing and talking to people. Her biggest asset as a writer is insatiable curiosity. She’s worked as a columnist covering parenting, health and education for MSNBC.com and many other publications. She’s currently an education contributor to TheAtlantic.com. Victoria’s essays have been published in The Midwest Review and Barrelhouse literary magazines. Her husband and she have two sons, ages 13 and 6. Victoria is a part-time college professor (after being a first-gen college student) and has been a parent volunteer at a traditional public elementary school in their far-flung suburb of Los Angeles as well as in a charter school devoted to whole child and social/emotional-centered education. Besides reading and writing, she's obsessed with yoga, meditation, making homemade Oreos (“Victoreos”) and Isaac, the family's 8-pound Chihuahua mix. She still believes, despite what some critics say, that education is the most powerful force we have against ignorance, violence and despair. Find her on Twitter @vicclay.

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